After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.
The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?
In the summer of 2011 when the Palestinians first announced their intention of trying an end around the U.S.-sponsored peace process via the UN, many foreign policy observers as well as many Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government were quick to portray this effort as a “diplomatic tsunami” that would completely isolate the Jewish state. But these visions of doom were quickly exposed as nothing more than hot air when the initiative flopped last year. The Palestinians failed to gain enough votes in the Security Council to force the U.S. to veto actual independence and they soon realized there was little appetite even in the General Assembly where they could count on an automatic anti-Israel majority to delve into the issue.
They’ve done better this year but not because anybody really thinks Fatah’s corrupt, discredited and unpopular West Bank regime is deserving of this upgrade. Rather, it is merely a way for the international community to pay lip service to the plight of the Palestinians. They’ve gained the votes of some European nations like France, not because Paris believes that Abbas’s pretensions should be gratified but because they think they need to make some gesture toward the PA after the recently concluded fighting between Israel and Hamas along the border with Gaza. By demonstrating that it had the support of Egypt and Turkey as well as most Palestinians for their terrorist rocket offensive against Israel, Hamas confirmed its status as the true face of Palestinian nationalism. The UN vote won’t do a thing to undermine the Islamist group, but it will allow many in the West and elsewhere to pretend as if they are doing something to bolster the alleged moderates of Fatah.
Both Israelis and Palestinians know that if PA leader Mahmoud Abbas actually wanted a state in the West Bank, he could have one if he was willing to pay the price of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Even if we were to assume that he wanted to do it, Abbas can’t since that would render him even more vulnerable to Hamas inroads in the West Bank.
The UN gambit is an insult to the U.S. and the European nations that fund the PA through foreign aid that does little to help ordinary Palestinians, since it is an attempt to evade negotiations rather than to facilitate them. But they are tolerating it since it allows Abbas a shred of dignity in his increasingly unequal competition with the terrorist government of Gaza. Were Jerusalem to punish the PA or, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to do in the past, to topple it, it would only make things more complicated for Israel and strengthen Hamas.
But after the hoopla tomorrow at Turtle Bay, there will be little in the way of negative fallout for the Israelis. Life will continue as usual in the West Bank and Gaza and the region will be no closer or farther away from peace. While certainly unwelcome, it is neither a tsunami nor even much of a nuisance. The best proof that Israel is right to ignore it will come in the days, weeks and months to come when both the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders realize that the UN vote was a non-event that did nothing much to advance their campaign against Israel.